7 Pro-Choice Pioneers You've Probably Never Even Heard Of
It's been more than 40 years since Roe v. Wade, but abortion access remains as controversial as ever. And it's clear that the pro-choice movement would never have gotten this far without people fighting for it every day for decades. Some of those fighters are famous names you probably know — Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan, Jane Roe (actually Norma McCorvey), and the Earl Warren court that decided the epochal case in 1973. But there is a long history of women (and men) who fought for abortion's legality back when it was taboo and fought for its access once it was allowed.
The fight for securing safe abortion access for women across the country (let alone the world) is far from over. In fact, with the 2016 elections ushering Donald Trump and several anti-choice politicians, the battle has only grown tougher. Already since the election, the Ohio state legislature passed the "heartbeat bill," which would ban abortion after six weeks, before many women even know they are pregnant. That bill was not signed by Gov. John Kasich, but he did sign a 20-week abortion ban into law. Texas has also mandated that fetal remains be buried or cremated less than a month after the election.
There are of course far too many important pioneers for us to list, but here are seven vital people without whom women's right to choice would likely not be anywhere near where it is today.
1. Stella Browne
Born in 1880, Stella Browne supported abortion decades before people even debated it in public. She was a writer and an activist, angrily and uncompromisingly fighting for abortion and birth control back when even the most radical feminists drew the line at the latter. In 1936, she joined Janet Chance and other feminists in starting the British pro-choice organization Abortion Law Reform Association, which still fights for abortion rights today (under the name Abortion Rights).
2. Dr. Milan Vuitch
Before there was Roe v. Wade, there was United States v. Vuitch, the first Supreme Court case dealing with abortion. Milan Vuitch was a doctor in Washington, D.C. in the days before Roe, one of the few in the country who not only performed abortions but spoke about them openly and proudly. He was arrested 16 times, and one of those times in 1969, he appealed all the way to the Supreme Court. He lost the case, but he proved that the time was coming for someone to stand up.
3. Sarah Weddington
Supreme Court cases don't happen without people fighting for them. And Sarah Weddington took on a powerful enemy when she, a young female lawyer in a time where there were few, took on Texas abortion law as the attorney for Jane Roe in the famous Roe v. Wade. At just 26, she argued in front of the Supreme Court, after having already had her own secret abortion in Mexico four years earlier. It was through her legal brilliance that she ensured no American woman would have to cross the border again.
4. Merle Hoffman
Once abortion became legal, there was still the problem of guaranteeing the access to abortion for those who finally had the right to it. Merle Hoffman was one step ahead. In 1971, she founded the Choices Medical Center in Queens, New York, one of the first legal abortion clinics that has grown to servicing 40,000 patients each year. In 1977 she followed it up by founding the National Abortion Federation. Along the way, she's never stopped fighting and protesting, armed with a trademark six-foot coat-hanger.
5. Byllye Avery
The pro-choice movement has long held at its core the principle of helping women who need it most, and few have exemplified that like Byllye Avery. As the founder of the Black Women's Health Imperative, Avery has spent decades fighting for women of color to have the same access to abortion and healthcare as any.
6. Amy Hagstrom Miller
In 2003, Amy Hagstrom Miller founded Whole Woman's Health, an organization of abortion clinics around the country. In 2013, Texas passed a law that massively restricted abortion providers in the state, claiming it was to protect women's health. Abortion providers throughout the state were forced to close, but Miller and Whole Woman's Health fought back. They sued, and the case made it all the way to the Supreme Court last year, where five of the eight justices found in Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt that states need much better reasons to shut down abortion clinics.
7. The Boston Women's Health Collective
Okay, this is a group of women, not a single one, but this collective was truly pioneering — and not just in abortion rights. The Boston Women's Health Collective authored the landmark book about women's health and wellness, Our Bodies, Ourselves. According to the organization's website, 12 women met in 1969 for a workshop on "women and their bodies." In 1971, they published Our Bodies, Ourselves which included, among many controversial section, advice on abortion. It is still being published, and is now in its ninth edition.